Thu, 25 Dec 2003

Contemplating a military coup

Kusnanto Anggoro Senior Researcher Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Jakarta

Historian Andrew Janos wrote in 1964 that a military coup in the United States "would be too fantastic to contemplate, not only because few would actually entertain the idea, but also because the bulk of the people are strongly attached to the prevailing (democratic) political system" (The Seizure of Power: A Study of Force and Popular Consent, Research Monograph No. 16, Center for International Studies, Princeton University, 1964, p. 39).

According to Janos, a coup against an elected democratic government could only occur if political apathy prevailed as the dominant feature in society.

Three decades later, Charles J. Dunlap Jr., then a lieutenant colonel and Deputy Staff Judge Advocate, U.S. Central Command, at MacDill AFB, Florida, envisaged an American military coup in 2012. (The Origins of the American Military Coup 2012, Parameter, Winter 1992-1993: pp. 2-20). The main ingredient behind the coup, according to Dunlap, was widespread exasperation with democracy.

Such contrasting views deserve special attention. Janos was a civilian, who believed in participatory politics. On the other hand, Dunlap was a military officer concerned more with effective government. To him, a military coup was possible if people became disillusioned at the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation's dilemmas.

Arguably, the post-2004 election will lead to such an environment. Indonesia's societal malaise was readily apparent in 2003.

According to a poll earlier this year, 78 percent of Indonesians believed the country was on the "wrong track." One researcher declared that social indicators were at their lowest level in 20 years. The country suffered from a "deep pessimism about politicians and government after years of broken promises."

Meanwhile, TNI's political faction in the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) abstained from two votes leading up to the special legislative session in 2001. Generals refused to uphold President Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid's emergency decree, designed to keep him in power. Still, in Maluku and Aceh military operations succeeded in reducing the brutality that often characterizes territorial military action.

With such "political neutrality and professional" conduct, Janos' and Dunlap's theses appeared to be mutually reinforcing.

People began to dream of a return of the Soeharto legacy. As people are looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers to the nation's crises, the military appears to have been successful in restoring a considerable degree of public confidence. Of course, political oxygen as such may be insufficient for a military coup.

Nonetheless, another oxygen prevails, i.e. a praetorian guard mentality in the military. Both the ouster of Gus Dur (2001) and discussion on Article 19 of the draft of the Armed Forces bill (2003) indicate some important points. Disobeying Gus Dur, constitutionally the supreme commander of the military, was not, according to the military, an act of insubordination. With a strong belief that "loyalty to the government must be in line with that to the people," the move against him was justified because the president was engaging in a political struggle with his legislature, also political institutions.

While the fall of Gus Dur showed that the military can continue to influence events, debate on Article 19 of the draft of the Armed Forces bill may illuminate another military fixation.

Indeed, the article, under which the Armed Forces chief is required only to inform the president 24 hours after deploying troops when he determines the well-being of the state is at risk, was not an indication that army conservatives were preparing a contingency measure in anticipation of anything going wrong in the 2004 election.

In fact, argument used in the discussions related to more practical issues, for instance intercepting intruding foreign aircraft into Indonesian's territory or uncontrollable communal conflict in remote areas. Changes of personnel in the drafting committee of the bill were not necessarily predestined to the return of Army conservatives, though some of them brought orthodoxies.

Nonetheless, the article did not fall from the sky. The whole discussion about the military has regressed to the patterns that existed before Soeharto's fall from power. Since mid-2001 senior officers have been genuinely concerned about the civilian political leadership, about the involvement of party leaders in money politics and especially, about their perception that politicians show more concern for rebel casualties in places like Aceh than the casualties of their own army.

Military coups have been seen somewhat less frequently since the mid-1980s. The failure of military regimes in Latin America to resolve the economic and political problems appeared to have made the military much more reluctant to intervene in politics. In contrast to past crises, the armed forces sat on the sidelines through economic crises such as the Asian crisis in Thailand in 1998 or the Argentinean crisis of 2002.

Failed transition to democracy, either in the form of ineffective government, the shortsighted interest of civilian elites or mounting corruption, could invite military intervention, although this should not necessarily end up with a military regime.

In Pakistan (1999), Pervez Musharraf moved in with the promise of fighting corruption. In Cote d'Ivoire and the Central American Republic (2002) the military serves as an arbiter between civilian leaders.

Democracy is a fragile institution that must be continuously nurtured and scrupulously protected. The old credo that the military is the guardian of the state is taking on special meaning for the Indonesian Armed Forces, amidst a prevailing strong ideological fixation and an ingrained, self-defined, quasi-religious mission of protecting the state.

At present, few generals envisage such a coup. The political role of the military will not end in 2004. I was somewhat nervous when an active general told me, "despite being no longer in the legislature, the military will use the authority with which it is vested to take part in safeguarding and controlling the reform movement."

By definition, a military coup is simply the use of the threat of military force to remove a particularly unpopular leader; the military may not directly assume power. This occurred twice in the Philippines in 2003. Let us hope that the 2004 elections do not fail to establish an effective government, and thereby further deepen political apathy.

Kusnanto Anggoro is a lecturer, postgraduate studies program University of Indonesia, Jakarta.